The dramatic response from the community to Alan Jones' bullying of Sydney Opera House CEO Louise Herron this week and Gladys Berejiklian's decision to allow promotion of a horse race (basically a gambling ad) on the Opera House sails is about much more than the "interview" or the subsequent decision by the Premier of NSW. It is clear evidence of the growing sense of disillusionment with traditional institutions of authority in our society, driven by a belief that people in power are increasingly acting in their own interests.
This presents a real challenge for those of us trying to bring communities together. Through my work, I have the privilege of getting to know people from all walks of life, to better understand their aspirations and fears. While I come across a lot of people actively involved in improving their community, I've found widespread feelings of disconnection and disempowerment.
When it comes to their experience with community engagement, what I hear from communities and stakeholders can be summed up as follows: “I have no influence on the decisions that affect me. If I am consulted, it’s a box-ticking exercise. I never hear anything back. I don’t believe it has any impact; the decision has already been made.” In short, “they don't really care what I think.”
On the other hand, I hear leaders say: “We spend a lot of time and resources trying to engage, and people aren’t interested. Good engagement is time-consuming and expensive. We usually hear from the same people and mostly from those who have a problem. It’s hard to build trust when decision making is driven by financial or political considerations.”
It’s a matter of trust
Faced with this challenge, I have made it my focus to better understand what is going on. Over the last couple of years, I have taken every opportunity to talk to business and community leaders, councillors, engagement practitioners and my colleagues at RMIT about what’s working, what's not working and what we can do about it. The aim of my research is to really understand the problem, so we can work towards a solution.
The issues at play are underlined by the findings of the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global study based on 18 years of data across 28 countries. In 2017, the Barometer found that 59 per cent of Australians believe the system is broken. That most Australians believe the institutions we rely on – business, government, NGOs and the media – cannot be trusted to do what they say they will do. More than half of the population feels disenfranchised by the way businesses operate and how we are governed. That freaks me out. NGOs are no longer seen as the force for good they once were, and trust in media has fallen off a cliff as it becomes an increasingly self-referential echo chamber.
The 2018 Barometer is just as sobering. Trust has continued to decline, with trust amongst the general population in all four institutions falling below 50 per cent for the first time. Australia now sits just four percentage points above Russia, the world’s least trusting country.
Engagement is the answer, right?
From my experience over the last few years, I've come to believe that much of the engagement undertaken isn't working. In fact, it often leads to greater disillusionment. When you really listen to people and try to understand why they’re negative or take an opposing view, it’s often much more than the project or issue they are being consulted on. It's something much deeper.
It's not just about the major new roadway, or the redevelopment of their neighbourhood. It's about the fact that the people they raised their kids with have all moved away, that the path they walk their dog along every day is no longer there, that the quiet suburb they moved into is busier and more crowded. About who decides what will be built and in whose interest. About their connection to place, the pace of change, and a general sense that they don't have control of their future.
While I don’t profess to have all the answers as to why engagement is not working, some clear themes have emerged through my research.
Engagement is most often undertaken on a project by project basis and starts with a blank sheet, as though we don't already know what people think, or that we can't easily find out by doing some preliminary research. The same channels are used to engage the same people, so we hear from the usual suspects and the squeaky wheels.
Almost always, engagement is framed by the needs and interests of the organisation wanting to engage. We set out to ask people what they think about a new strategy, policy or development, without first making the effort to understand their priorities. Their perspective. We seek input into limited aspects of a project. When it comes down to it, there is little up for negotiation and not much the community can really influence.
Too often, engagement occurs in a “black box”. Community views are captured through listening posts, workshops, surveys and submissions via online portals. Human concerns and perspectives go in, but what comes out is highly sanitised. There is little feedback or transparency.
The process provides limited opportunity to unearth the real issues, to build the capacity of the community to understand the issues or meaningfully contribute. Findings typically report the key themes of interest or concern, most of which we knew – or should have known – before we engaged. We ask people to fill out a 10-minute survey and expect this will give us an understanding that will lead to better decision-making and drive change.
At the end of the process, there is a lack of rigorous analysis to provides real insights into stakeholder perspectives and little evaluation about the effectiveness of the engagement. We fail to report back fully and openly about what we heard and how it made a difference. We find there is no time and no budget.
So how can we engage to build trust?
Firstly, we can understand the context in which the engagement will take place. Gather all available information to gain an understanding of the views of stakeholders in relation to the organisation or issue. In most instances, a bit of effort and digital nous can provide a good understanding of their views, whether the issue is important and what else may be going on that could impact the outcomes of the engagement effort.
With an understanding of the context, ask, is engagement is the right approach? Is now the right time? If an issue is highly contested, it may be necessary to do more work with stakeholders before engaging more broadly. Once a decision has been made to proceed, use the insights gained through research to define the problem and the population. What is it that you really need to achieve? Are you providing a voice or influencing change? Who exactly is the “community” we need to engage?
Once engagement commences, avoid the “black box” and share outcomes along the way to generate discussion. This reduces the risk that a decision is made to not publish the report or only share a summary. The engagement process is an opportunity to create connections within the community, build capacity for people to understand the issues and work together, and to identify and support those who are leading the way.
Finally, in analysing the data, go beyond reporting key themes raised in the discussion. Is it possible to capture what was said, who said it and how they are related? Providing a better understanding of the way a community operates. Are there inconsistencies or results that point to areas for further research? What insights can be drawn to guide strategy development and communication? How can you foster the interest and enthusiasm generated to achieve change?
Healthy communities are built upon trust. The Opera House saga is a symptom of a much greater challenge we face in bridging the increasing divide between people and those who hold traditional sources of power in our society.
Intelligent engagement, based on rigorous research and analysis, provides us with the tools to build trust with our stakeholders and communities. More than ever we need to listen, create connections and inspire people to believe that things can change for the better.